10/12/2006 12:00AM

One year later, Gorella can be defeated again


One week into the Keeneland meet, getting a handle on how to play races on Polytrack remains a focus for handicappers. But late Saturday afternoon, if only for a little while, Keeneland horseplayers can forget about synthetic surfaces for an hour or so and concentrate on some top grass racing.

The Grade 2 First Lady and Grade 1 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup highlight a class-laden card of racing Saturday at Keeneland, and with competitive fields, both races are dynamite betting affairs.

Up first is the First Lady, a one-mile turf race that goes as the eighth on the card. The clear headliner of the race is Gorella, winner of the Beverly D., who is 7-5 on the morning line.

Despite what those odds might suggest, there does not appear to be much separating her from the rest of the field. Handicappers need only look back to last year's QE II for evidence. In that race, Sweet Talker edged Karen's Caper by a nose, with Gorella a head back in third. Almost a year later, all three are back racing again at Keeneland, with the only differences being that they are older and the First Lady is a furlong shorter.

I like Karen's Caper as an alternative to a short-priced Gorella. Although I respect Gorella and the fine year she has had, Karen's Caper is likely to offer more value. She is 5-1 on the morning line, even after winning the

Grade 2 Noble Damsel in her last start.

I was impressed by how she rated in fifth in that race and finished powerfully to outrun early leader Pomme Frites by three-quarters of a length. Visually, the race was similar to how Gorella won the Grade 2 Just a Game Handicap earlier this year over Pomme Frites.

The likely pace scenario of the First Lady would appear to suit both Karen's Caper and Gorella. Most of the entrants race up close early, setting the stage for an off-the-pace winner.

The presence of other speed in the race might lessen the effectiveness of My Typhoon and Mea Domina. Although neither needs the lead, their best races have come on the front end.

QE II: Germance dangerous invader

As closely matched as the field appears for the First Lady, the QE II for 3-year-old fillies could be an even better betting race. Magnificent Song and Take the Ribbon, the one-two finishers from the Grade 1 Garden City Breeders' Cup, are two prominent entries and are joined by the likes of the unbeaten Vacare and Mauralakana, who ran third vs. older mares in her one start in this country.

As well as they have performed, I doubt they can outrun Germance, a French invader who has lost just once in her six-race career.

Germance acts like a special filly. She won over observers overseas with several eye-catching performances, and even a loss in the French Oaks did little to damage her reputation. Although she could not catch a longshot winner in Confidential Lady, Germance showed heart to get up for second, outrunning Queen Cleopatra, a well-regarded filly from the Aidan O'Brien stable.

Germance benefits from catching a field that lacks the best U.S. 3-year-old turf filly, Wait a While, who recently won the Yellow Ribbon stakes against older competition. Lady of Venice, another top U.S.-based runner, is also not in the QE II.

That leaves the race ripe for a European invader to win, and Germance looks like the one. She has already proven she can outrun Mauralakana, having finished three lengths in front of her when Mauralakana was sixth in the French Oaks.

TCA: Play Ballado has right style for surface

There is one other stakes at Keeneland on Saturday, the Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes going six furlongs on Polytrack. Behaving Badly looms the favorite, and Malibu Mint, Hide and Chic, and Hot Storm are also likely to draw support because of their established Polytrack form.

I'm going to take a shot with an untested Polytrack horse: Play Ballado, an 8-1 outsider who won a third-level allowance at Saratoga by 10 1/4 lengths in her last start Aug. 28.

Beyond winning easily that day, she also showed things over the winter at Santa Anita that suggest she could be a force. When racing in the Grade 2 La Canada Stakes on Feb. 12, she chased a blistering pace but still held on to be second to Seafree.

Although she disappointed in her next start, a sixth-place finish in the Grade 1 Santa Margarita on March 11, her race in the La Canada hinted of bigger things to come. Perhaps the time for those big things is Saturday.

Based on how the Polytrack surface has played, Play Ballado has the right style. Stalkers and closers sitting a few lengths off the pace have been most effective, and that is how she runs in sprint races.

If Behaving Badly fails to run back to the brilliance she has shown on dirt, Play Ballado could be in a position to upset.